Grace Slick: Outside the Looking Glass
Photo by Joel Lipton
Four decades and one year ago this summer, Grace Slick peered out at a half-million fans with bloodshot eyes. It was 6 a.m. Woodstock, N.Y. time. “Morning, people,” she yelped into the microphone. “You’ve seen the heavy groups. Now you’ll see some morning maniac music.”
With that, her group Jefferson Airplane launched into two of its biggest hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” The band was supposed to take the stage at 9 p.m. the previous evening, but chaos at Woodstock held them back. “Things kept getting screwed up,” recalls Slick. “‘You’re not on now, you’re on in a half-hour,’ then, ‘You’re on now. Oh no, now you’re not.’
“We hung out all night backstage,” she continues. “The speakers weren’t aimed at us, so we heard this muddled barrage of sound and all I saw were other performers’ butts. But hey, we were in our twenties. You talk to people, take drugs, eat grapes, smoke dope. When I said ‘morning maniac music’ it was because I had no idea how we’d sound at that point.”
Today, Slick, 70, paints white rabbits instead of singing about them. In July, a dozen of her works brought in a total of $30,000 at San Diego’s Alexander Salazar Fine Art Gallery. In addition to animals, she also paints fellow ‘60s rock icons: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. Slick is obviously a lot luckier than they are—she survived the drug culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s— they, of course, did not.
Make no mistake, Slick is still relevant—and feisty. Angered by the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, she released “The Edge of Madness,” a song whose proceeds are helping fishermen affected the catastrophe. The tune, which Slick co-wrote with Michelle Mangione, features more than 20 musicians, including Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers and former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Kid Ramos.
But such musical collaboration is rare these days. Slick pretty much quit the rock scene when she turned 50, shortly after Jefferson Airplane’s reunion in 1989. “I’m not comfortable being an old person on a rock and roll stage,” she says from her home in Malibu, Calif. “Rock, to me, is like sports. You have a certain run and then get out, because it’s no longer applicable.”
When Slick discusses the group she wound down her career with, Jefferson Starship (an evolution of the Airplane), she doesn’t pull punches. “I have trouble singing songs I don’t believe. In the early ‘70s, Jack [Casady] and Jorma [Kaukonen] went to Europe for a year [Hot Tuna] and Paul [Kantner] and I started doing Jefferson Starship. We had an agreement we wouldn’t call it Airplane unless all the original members were playing.
“Paul likes outer space stuff so, I thought, if you want to call it Starship, fine. We did a good first album, Blows Against the Empire . The ‘80s Starship is what I didn’t like. There’s a lot of stuff about the ‘80s that was just dorky, and our music fit right into the dorkiness.”
An example she cites is their chart-topping “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” “Now 52 percent of people who get married get divorced,” says Slick, twice divorced herself. “A truck will stop you now. A big semi will really stop you. What do you mean, nothing’s going to stop us? To say that is hubris.”
Slick gleefully confirms the oft-told anecdote that she believes Starship’s “We Built This City” is the worst song ever recorded. “Bernie Taupin wrote it about clubs closing in Los Angeles in the 1970s,” she says. “I thought, ‘OK, but LA isn’t built on rock and roll, but on oranges, oil and the movie industry.’
“People really thought we were singing about San Francisco. Except San Francisco was built on trade and gold. London was built by the Romans. There is no city built on rock because it’s too new. I felt like a dope singing it. But it went to No. 1. That’s pretty pathetic as regards to people’s tastes.”
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